Monday, August 23, 2010

The Relevance of Studying Environmental Influence on Moral Judgments

Imagine that I present the following research proposal.

I am going to bring in people off of the street and pay them some small amount of money to participate in an experiment.

In this experiment, I am going to show them pictures of planets and asteroids and ask them, "What is the average surface temperature of that object?" And I am going to record their answers.

What makes this project interesting is that I am going to vary the temperature in the room, or the background music, or introduce some type of odor, and I am going to measure how their answer is affected by these variables.

For example, one hypthesis that I might test is that there will be a direct relationship between the answers that people give and the temperature in the room, or that music with a faster tempo will be associated with a higher estimate of the average surface temperature of the planet.

As another part of this research they perform brain scans on people while they conduct these tests. They want to see what parts of the brain light up when they are asked to report the surface temperature of a planet and see how changing the environment not only affects their answers but which parts of the brain are being used to provide those answers.

Here is the kicker: I am going to call myself an astronomer. I am going to report that I am involved in a detailed and important study of the planets that promises to yield important empircal findings relevant in the field of astronomy. Astronomy textbooks will have to be rewritten as a result of the scientific research I am going.

I suspect a few astronomers might protest, "Without commenting on how useful and important your findings are, you are not engaged in astronomy and you are not studying the planets. You are barking up the wrong academic tree if you want to call that research astronomy."

But I am going to ignore them. I'm not even going to try to offer a defense. I am simply going to continue on with my research and, whenever I report my findings, I am going to intruduce myself as an astronomer engaged in an emirical and scientific study of the planets and asteroids in our solar system.

Well, there are people who are doing this same thing when it comes to morality. They ask people to judge the morality of different actions and record the results. They measure how changes in the environment - from the presence of particular odors to the presence of chocolate - can affect their answers.

And they tell us that they are engaged in the scientific study of morality.

This is utter nonsense. These people are no more involved in the study of morality than the people in the first case were involved in the study of the planets.

If you want to study morality, you need to give me some way to answer the question of whether particular acts are really wrong or really right - not what people's guesses are under different types of conditions. If you are actually studying the planets then you are going to report the actual surface temperature. If you are actually studying morality then you are going to report on the actual rightness and wrongness of certain actions.

It's a simple argument to make. It is difficult to imagine a simpler argument. Yet, there is a group out there, made up mostly of scientists and atheists, who simply shut their ears to this argument because they are enraptured by the idea that they are engaged in the scientific study of morality itself.

With fingers in their ears, they shout, "La la la la. I can't hear you!"

Furthermore, in the same way that there is such a massive gap between how we determine the actual surface temperature of a planet and the effects of environmental influences on the guesses that people provide, we can expect a similar massive gap between how we determine the actual rightness or wrongness of an action and the environmental influences on the guesses that people provide.

We can expect the study of actual rightness and wrongness to be nothing at all like what these scientists are actually studying.

Of course, I am assuming that there is an actual rightness and wrongness to be studied. Actually, I deny that it is an "assumption". It is, instead, a rationally defensible fact. However, I do not need it to be the case that this is true to make my point.

If there is no actual rightness or wrongness to be reported, then any study of people's reports of rightness or wrongness is a study of optical illusions and self-deception. It is a study of how the brain causes people to adopt beliefs that have no correspondence with the real world - that are, in fact, false.

In this case, it may be interesting to study how our brain and senses deceive us into making these judgments, but when it comes to the actual rightness and wrongness of things, there is none.

Regardless of whether you believe that rightness and wrongness are real, there is still a huge gap between the study of the environmental influences on our reports of the rightness and wrongness of things, and its actual rightness and wrongness. One does not have to assume moral realism to make this distinction.

Furthermore, if there is no actual rightness and wrongness to study and report, then we still must recognize the fact that nature is giving us imaginary or illusionary justifications for killing, imprisoning, and otherwise harming each other. If there is no actual rightness or wrongness, then every exercise in "justice" is just another case like that of the mother who drowns her children to protect them from satan. We are killing, maiming, imprisoning, and otherwise harming each other for imaginary reasons - for reasons in the realm of "make-believe."

Or, rightness or wrongness are real.

But that's a different question. The question at issue here is whether people who measure the environmental influences on moral judgment are involved in the study of morality. The answer is to be found in the answer to the question, "Are people who study the environmental effects of guesses as to the surface temperature of a planet . . . are those people astronomers? Are they really studying the planets?"

6 comments:

Brian said...

You should be more specific about what project you are criticizing because I can think of legitimate reasons for a morality researcher to ask the types of questions you mention. The "...actual rightness and wrongness of certain actions..." depends on how people actually are, were they different, which actions are moral would be different. Therefore, it's important to learn about them.

If I survey people from different cultures asking what is moral, and person A says "Treat others as you would like to be treated, don't eat cows, and accept the Vedas", B says "Treat others as you would like to be treated, don't drink alcohol, and pray five times daily", C says "Treat others as you would like to be treated, don't eat pork or shellfish, and don't shave the corners of your beard," that would be useful information, the implications of which are directly relevant for morality. One might notice a pattern in which people universally believe some things despite pressure not to (from texts they believe are divine), that they tend to do certain types of things (have eating taboos for example) without such being identical in specifics, or any number of things.

Central to morality is figuring out how people are convinced or coerced into behaviors and influenced in their beliefs. Learning what has already done that to them seems like the best way to get the understanding of humanity that one would need to understand morality vis a vis humanity.

You're criticizing people who are undertaking necessary steps to understand morality because those steps aren't sufficient to fully understand morality. That's not fair unless they are specifically claiming their research would be sufficient, which is something you should provide evidence for.

Almost every researcher is doing research that has virtually no possibility of independently totally solving a great human mystery, and would be guilty of hubris to claim otherwise. It's weird to me that you neither made that abstract point nor went all the way and provided a specific, evidenced backed criticism of wrongdoing.

You instead said that "...a group out there, made up mostly of scientists and atheists..." is acting foolishly. This halfway statement is unfair to the accused group. I am liable to make an unfair judgement about that group and by extension individuals in that group because I am a flawed human being, like many on the internet. Lifnei iver lo sitein michshol, as a wise man once wrote.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Brian

I am not questioning the legitimacy of the research. I am questioning the legitimacy of calling it the scientific study of morality.

In other words, don't pretend that you are telling me anything about what is right and wrong in fact. The study of how people are convinced of something is a different field of study than the study of what is true. People are persuaded of all sorts of things using fallacies and lies. They are quite effective. Proving that a particular fallacy and lies are effective does not, in any way, prove that they are something other than fallacies and lies.

The claim that these are "necessary steps to understanding morality" is as far off-base as saying that the studies of what influences people's guesses on the temperature of planets are "necessary steps to understanding planet formation."

To study planet formation you study planets - not people's uninformed guesses about the properties of planets. To study morality you study right and wrong action - not people's uninformed guesses as to the moral properties of actions.

These are two different fields of study.

Brian said...

"To study morality you study right and wrong action - not people's uninformed guesses as to the moral properties of actions."

An ethical system as applied to humans has to deal with humans' specific levels of susceptibility to various fallacies.

To study morality you study peoples' right and wrong action - mostly their uninformed guesses as to the moral properties of actions, since (in my experience) people are generally well meaning, even people who perform the worst acts.

Kaelik said...

If no real rightness and wrongness exists, then who does actually get to claim they are studying morality?

If there are no real ethics, then you are equally as presumptive and equally as incorrect calling yourself an ethicist, as anyone claiming to be studying morality while asking them questions about what they think, and only Error Theorists get to actually be ethicists.

Or perhaps, if there is no real moral rightness and moral wrongness, then morality is only a subset of psychology studying what people think about rightness and wrongness, in which case, studying what people think is right and wrong has a much claim as anything reasonably within the category.

So while we are on the subject, would you care to rationally defend this supposed fact? I haven't seen you actually defend it anywhere. A link would be sufficient.

Luke said...

Alonzo,

I think you're misrepresenting what most moral psychologists say they are doing. The problem is that 'morality' has two different meanings, one from philosophy and one from sociology/psychology. When moral psychologists say they are studying the science of morality, they are quite clear to say they are studying the science of moral judgment, moral belief, moral behavior. And that is what they're studying.

There are some who say they are also studying the science of moral value itself, but that is because they have already concluded that moral value is identical to moral judgments/belief/behavior. That is, they are relativists. So if relativism is correct, then they're right to say they are studying the science of moral value by studying the science of moral judgments. The problem is that relativism is incorrect, not that these people are oblivious to the distinctions you have drawn above.

em said...

i'm kind of with luke. (jury) trial lawyers have probably paid (repeatedly) for what Luke calls "psychology" research on environment's influence on (stated) "morality".
and philosophical "research" into morality is not supposed to be a popularity survey. :-)

the psychological study of environment's effect on guessed planet surface temperatures, is similar to psych poll of morals, except that nobody will *pay* for the planet temperature research.